It is a little past 6:30 in the morning on Whidbey Island, in Washington’s Puget Sound, and despite the earliness of the hour and wretchedness of the weather, Dan Harville is admiring the torch lilies in Al Lunemann’s garden. Hummingbirds flurry about the tall red plants, drinking, hovering and chasing each other.
“Okay,” Harville says, shaking himself from his reverie. “Let’s set up the trap.” He arranges a homemade, remote-controlled net over one of the feeders Lunemann keeps on the front porch.
He waits until three or four hummingbirds are working the feeder’s spigots and then, with a push of a button, drops the net, trapping the birds inside. They flutter against the fine mesh, mildly befuddled. “Now,” Harville says, “you can just stick your hand in and get them.” Which he does, plucking them out one by one and placing each in its own small cloth bag so it will stay calm.
In Lunemann’s garage, Harville withdraws a small tuft of feathers—a female rufous hummingbird. He works quickly. “I only want to keep her for two minutes at most,” he says. He swaddles the bird in a scrap of fabric, clips it closed so she can’t fly away, and weighs her—“3.17 grams,” he tells his wife, Jan, who records the data. He measures the length of the bird’s needle bill, wing and tail feathers.
He blows in the bird’s chest to measure her subcutaneous fat and determine whether she is plump and healthy. Then he picks up a speck of aluminum—the band—and deftly fits it around the bird’s tiny leg, tightening it ever so carefully with a pair of pliers. He dabs a dot of pink paint on the top of the hummingbird’s head so he will know she has already been processed should he catch her again.
Finished, he holds her out in the palm of his hand. “Off you go,” he says. The hummingbird, which has until now been still and passive, zips away. Harville watches for a moment, and then reaches for the next twitching bag.
Harville, recently retired as a computer programmer at the University of Washington, is one of fewer than 100 master hummingbird banders in the United States. In 12 years of banding, he has caught 9,986 hummingbirds from five species (plus one hybrid); over the course of a single year, he will rotate his trap among six or seven sites throughout Washington.
His aim is to help sketch migratory patterns, which are for the most part only vaguely known. But he hopes to help answer a larger question. In the last 20 years, rufous hummingbirds, along with some other species, have started to show up more and more in places they are not supposed to be. No one knows why, but Harville and his ilk would like to find out.
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